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Shoaib Akhtar: The fast and the furious

Shoaib Akhtar: The fast and the furious

Shoaib Akhtar © Getty Images

The enigma that was Shoaib Akhtar was born on August 13, 1975. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at arguably the fastest bowler the world has ever produced.
The arrival

Pakistan had magically recovered to 185 after being reduced to 26 for six in the first morning. The hosts batted along, losing VVS Laxman and night-watchman Anil Kumble cheaply. Out walked Rahul Dravid, who steadied the ship with Sadagoppan Ramesh, and the score reached 147 for two on Day Two.

Shoaib Akhtar, the almost unheard-of fast bowler, was at his bowling mark. Earlier in the innings he had clean bowled Laxman, but people had dismissed it as a one-off. Even his inclusion in the side was marred by controversy: he was brought in place of Waqar Younis, who had a fall-out with Wasim Akram, the captain. The news got leaked somehow and before the Test Saleem Malik informed Shoaib: “Listen, you will get a chance to play in Kolkata, keep your spirits up.”

Shoaib Akhtar: The fast and the furious

Akhtar, with his long run-up, flowing hair and bulging chest muscles, was an intimidating sight for the best of batsmen © Getty Images

The huge cauldron that was Eden Gardens had relaxed down a bit after the partnership between Ramesh and Dravid. Shoaib marked up his long run-up; then he began charging in, the chest muscles bulging, the mane of unkempt hair flying against his face; it was the sprint of an athlete.

Dravid — the infallible Dravid — stood between the speedster and the stumps like a wall. Earlier in the innings Shoaib had managed to get under Dravid’s skin, which was followed by a verbal confrontation of sorts. This time, the ball reverse-swung sharply and dislodged Dravid’s bails.

The 100,000-strong crowd went silent for a while and then erupted into a huge applause as the small frame of Sachin Tendulkar appeared on the field. He took guard, and then got ready to take on Shoaib.

Before the Test had started the youngster had made it a point to meet Tendulkar. The following conversation had ensued:

Shoaib: Do you know me?

Tendulkar: No.

Shoaib: You will, soon enough.

There had also been a bet between Shoaib and Saqlain Mushtaq before the match. Saqlain had claimed that Sachin was ‘his’, to which Shoaib had replied, “No, he’s mine; you can’t take it because it’s my time now.”

Shoaib was taken aback by the reaction of the crowd. He wondered who it was, and why. It was at that moment that Saqlain poked Shoaib in the ribs and said, “Woh dekh, aa raha hai prize wicket” [Look, here comes the prize wicket.]

He had reached his bowling mark by the time the crowd had stopped cheering. In his autobiography Shoaib had mentioned praying to God in his unique style. Tendulkar’s bat came down slightly late and the ball went on its way to hit the timber. The great man walked off with the words, “I will remember you now,” to Shoaib.

The crowd sank into stunned silence. It was the first ball Shoaib had bowled to Tendulkar.

Shoaib, meanwhile, had fallen on to the ground in sajda with the words, “Thank you, Boss! Thank you!” The Eden Gardens, till then reputed as a stadium infested by people who never hesitated in cheering for overseas players, broke into a standing ovation for Shoaib at the end of the over.

Tendulkar was conquered, and so was Dravid. A dream was achieved. A star was born. A new name was etched in the annals of the sport.

It would not be the last time that Shoaib would play a role in a Tendulkar dismissal in the Test. Whereas the first wicket earned him accolades, the second led him to be jeered by the crowd and eventually led to yet another bottle-throwing incident that led to play being disrupted.

Shoaib writes: “I had my back to him and was concentrating on the return throw. I didn’t know he [Tendulkar] was behind me and somehow he got entangled between my legs. The throw was a scorcher that came in right from the boundary and was a direct hit.”

Few people, however, remember the fact that along with his four wickets in the first innings Shoaib had picked up four more wickets in the second innings as well: of course, he did not manage to get the prized scalp of Tendulkar, but he picked up Dravid once again.

Tendulkar would have his revenge, though: in an emotionally intense World Cup match at Centurion Park four years later the Little Master launched a furious assault on Shoaib, teeing off with an iconic six over third-man that sent a billion countrymen into wild ecstasy. He eventually scored a famous 75-ball 98 before falling to a rip-roaring bouncer from — no prizes for guessing — Shoaib again.

Controversies, comebacks, aggression, and inconsistency have marked Shoaib Akhtar’s entire career. However, despite all his attributes — strong or otherwise — there was one aspect of the sport that had set him apart from a lot of champions across eras.

Pace.

He kept striking…

Shoaib’s career tally reads 178 wickets from 46 Tests at an average of 25.69 and a strike rate of 45.7. Despite his excellent strike rate, his average had been affected by an economy rate of 3.37. Similarly, though his ODI strike rate reads 31.4 his average is 24.97 (which is still outstanding) thanks to an economy rate of 4.76.

Best strike rates in Tests
Qualification: 150 wickets
 Bowler M W Ave SR
Dale Steyn 65 332 22.65 41.1
Syd Barnes 27 189 16.43 41.6
Waqar Younis 87 373 23.56 43.4
Colin Blythe 46 178 25.69 45.4
Shoaib Akhtar 46 178 25.69 45.7

Do note that of the four bowlers above Shoaib, two are pre-World War I players who had the advantage of bowling on pitches that were a lot more conducive to bowlers.

Best strike rates in ODIs
Qualification: 200 wickets
 Bowler M W Ave SR
Brett Lee 221 380 23.36 29.4
Saqlain Mushtaq 169 288 21.78 30.4
Waqar Younis 262 416 23.84 30.5
Lasith Malinga 152 235 26.53 31.2
Shoaib Akhtar 163 247 24.97 31.4

Once again, Shoaib ranks the fifth in history in terms of strike rate. It would be interesting to note Waqar Younis’s position as well across the formats.
Early days

Born of a humble background, Shoaib had a frail constitution in his childhood. He was born flat-footed, which meant he often toppled during his childhood; he suffered from such a severe bout of whooping that his mother was advised by his grandfather to cut down the medical expenses and spend the frugal savings on Shoaib’s funeral instead. Thanks to the diligence of his mother he somehow managed to pull it through.

A rebel from a very young age, Shoaib ran away from his home in his mid-teens over a tussle with his brother Shahid and had to be hunted back by his friend Obaid; he got a three-day suspension for driving a motorbike through the college Principal’s room in the Principal’s presence; he tore across the roads of Rawalpindi on his favourite two-wheeler (and talked to it while driving).

In between all this, one day, as is often the case in Pakistan, a 16-year-old Shoaib was asked out of nowhere to bowl for Pindi Club when they were a player short. The captain threw him the ball, and he marked out the 70-yard run-up that would become famous in the decade to follow. A fielder yelled that Shoaib was supposed to bowl, not field. He responded, as his autobiography mentions, with the words “Just let me do my thing. Whatever I do, I do it like a star.”

Not many people could have uttered these words to his seniors, but Shoaib quietened everybody by hitting the batsman on the head with his first ball and on the chest with his second. The match, and a few subsequent ones, had earned Shoaib the reputation of a fierce fast bowler.

Majid Khan was present in one of these matches, and was impressed by Shoaib’s pace. The following post-match conversation ensued:

Majid: Son, what is your name?

Shoaib: Shoaib. Very soon everyone will know my name.

Majid: Son, I hope you have your head screwed tightly on your shoulders.

Shoaib (in a rare display of embarrassment): Yes.

The bragging didn’t end there, of course. Shoaib had caught the eyes of the Pakistan International Airlines selectors — Zaheer Abbas the chief of them. After the camp Zaheer called for Shoaib, and had a conversation:

Zaheer: You are the man I want. Do you want to play for me?

Shoaib: Yes, I will play for you, and soon I will be promoted to play for Pakistan.

Zaheer was left speechless.

After playing First-Class cricket for Pakistan International Airlines, Rawalpindi, Agricultural Development Bank of Pakistan, and Pakistan Under-19, Shoaib was eventually picked for the Sahara Cup squad of 1996 against India. As has always been the case, he was dropped before the tour on disciplinary grounds. It wasn’t until 1997 that he was picked for the Pakistan A tour of England.

It was Shoaib’s first exposure to foreign conditions. Generating hostile pace, Shoaib wreaked havoc in the second half of the British summer, running through sides that came across his path: his wayward line and length often cost him runs, but it was evident after the series that he was not only the fastest bowler in contemporary Pakistan, but perhaps the fastest the world has ever seen.

Even during this tour Shoaib managed to run into controversies. The coach, Agha Akbar, insisted the players shave every morning. Shoaib’s idea of playing a prank was to hide Akbar’s shaving kit for a day (which left the man loitering around with a stubble) and return it to the rightful place. However, he got caught and was fined £55. The action meant that he was out of the next year’s Sahara Cup as well.
Test debut

Shoaib was eventually picked for the second Test of the 1997-98 series against the West Indies at his hometown. Coming on to bowl after Wasim and Waqar, Shoaib picked up two for 47, and was dropped for the next Test at Karachi. The selectors, however, picked him for the subsequent twin tours of South Africa and Zimbabwe.

His first five-for came in the second Test at Kingsmead where he finally found a fast-paced pitch to suit his liking. After Azhar Mahmood (who can safely be called a South Africa-specialist) scored 132 out of 259 (170 during his stay at the wicket) Aamir Sohail unleashed Shoaib on the South Africans.

Shoaib began by clean bowling Jacques Kallis, and was on a hat-trick when he had Andrew Hudson next ball. He came back for another short burst to pick up Mark Boucher, Lance Klusener, and Fanie de Villiers — all bowled. He finished with five for 43 — his first five-for in Test cricket. The performance played a significant role in what turned out to be Pakistan’s first Test win over South Africa.

Once again he generated lethal pace in the Test against Zimbabwe at Bulawayo. He picked up four wickets in the Test, but perhaps the most lasting memory of his bowling was hitting Murray Goodwin on his head. A group of children — Vusimuzi Sibanda among them — had heard of Shoaib’s pace and had bunked school to watch him bowl. “Bloody hell, did he come at the batsman!” said an awestruck Sibanda later, who felt that the subsequent caning at school was completely worth it.

The Rawalpindi Express

By the time Pakistan reached England for the World Cup Shoaib was already a star, and the speed fanatics were eager to compare his pace to Allan Donald’s. A charged-up Shoaib’s first ball of the tournament at Bristol was a searing bouncer to Sherwin Campbell, who somehow managed to fend it: the ball flew over the wicket-keeper’s head like a rocket way over the ropes for a six.

By the time a perplexed Campbell recovered from the shock Shoaib had already walked up to him. When the two exchanged looks Shoaib simply uttered the words “Friend, you are in trouble.” Three runs later, Campbell was bowled by Shoaib.

The Pakistan juggernaut kept rolling — with Akram, Saqlain, and Abdur Razzaq all in supreme form with the ball. However, none matched the speed, and hence, the charisma of Shoaib, who had already been dubbed The Rawalpindi Express by Tony Greig. With the newly introduced speed gun, Shoaib kept on crossing hitherto (officially) unknown barriers — 97 mph, 98 mph, 99 mph…

They came up against New Zealand in the semi-final at Old Trafford, where Shoaib produced his best performance of the tournament. Figures of 10-0-55-3 can hardly be classified as exceptional, but the spectators on that day witnessed one of the fieriest displays of fast bowling ever — the peach probably being the scorching yorker Stephen Fleming had no answer to.

Despite superlative performances by almost all bowlers, the Pakistan batsmen let them down in the final: a dream that had seemed likely was shattered by the fingers of Shane Warne.

Thrown out of action

Shoaib was called for chucking for the first time by Peter Willey and Darrell Hair; the call was also supported by the match referee John Reid during the Australia tour at the end of the year. Once his action was cleared he ran into by a series of injuries — managing to strain his ribcage, shoulder, side, knee, and ankle – all in the same year: Shoaib had never been about half-measures.

On his comeback in an ODI at Auckland in 2001 Shoaib wrecked the New Zealand tail, picking up five for 19 (four bowled, one leg-before) and bowling them out for 149 from 142 for five. Almost incredibly, he broke down after bowling nine balls in the next ODI at Napier — injuring a new body part: his hamstring. To top everything he was called for chucking again — this time by Steve Dunne and Doug Cowie.

The clippings of Shoaib’s action were sent to the University of Western Australia, who cleared the action on the ground that the elbow used to bend because of his ‘unique physical characteristics’. Resuming cricket he got injured again, though this time it wasn’t his fault: he was hit on his head by a brick by a member of the Dhaka crowd.
Kiwi annihilations in Karachi

Desperate to regain his old stature Shoaib picked out the Kiwis at Karachi twice in the space of less than two weeks. In the first ODI of the 2001-02 series, Shoaib ran through the New Zealand middle and lower order, picking up six for 16, pulling off a 153-run victory for his country.

Then, in the first Test in the same venue, Shoaib followed Pakistan’s mammoth 643 with an amazing burst of 6-3-5-4 — all bowled. He came back to finish the innings for 73 and finished with 8.2-4-11-6. Following a trend that had perhaps become predictable by now, he missed the second innings completely due to ankle injury. The spells remain his career-best hauls in ODIs and Tests.

Sandwiched between these two matches was the Lahore ODI, where Shoaib clocked 161 kph (100.04 mph), thereby becoming the first bowler to cross the 100-mph barrier. However, since the source (Cybernet, a Lahore-based company) was not an official one, it is generally not given the required status.

[Note: The credit for the fastest ball prior to Shoaib’s is usually credited to Jeff Thomson, who had clocked 160.6 kph (99.79 mph) in 1976; the speed was measured at WACA, and has been documented in Dennis Lillee’s The Art of Fast Bowling]
Taming the champions, twice

Throughout his illustrious career Shoaib has produced several incredible spells. However, if this writer is asked to take a pick, it will probably be the one against Australia later in 2002. The Test was played on a flattish wicket at Colombo, and after Australia had scored 74 for one after taking a 188-run lead the Test seemed to be heading for the inevitable result.

The spell that followed was the kind youngsters dream of while aspiring to become fast bowlers — but seldom manage to achieve. It began with Ricky Ponting chopping one on to the stumps. The next ball brushed Mark Waugh’s pad and crashed on to the base of the stumps. It was too fast for him.

Steve Waugh somehow managed to survive the hat-trick ball despite an inside edge that missed the off-stump only marginally. The next ball was, once again, too fast for the Australian captain, and Steve Bucknor did not hesitate in ruling him out leg-before.

Saqlain snared Matthew Hayden at the other end. Shoaib, his adrenaline pumping harder than usual, let rip a yorker that missed Adam Gilchrist’s leg-stump as the batsman stole two leg-byes. Another yorker — similar to the one that had had the measure of Fleming in the World Cup semifinal three years back — followed: it crashed into the base of the leg-stump so perfectly that the leg-bail was the only bit of the wicket to be disturbed.

He finished the rout with trapping Shane Warne leg-before, and finished with five for 21. Australia crashed to 127 but eventually won the Test by 41 runs.

A couple of months earlier, with the series tied 1-1, Pakistan scored 256 in the last ODI at Gabba. Once again Shoaib ripped through the middle-order, removing Ponting, Darren Lehmann, Damien Martyn, and Michael Bevan in quick succession in a short burst. He picked up his fifth wicket to end with five for 25, and Pakistan clinched the series with a 91-run victory.


More controversies, more injuries, more speed, and some willow

It is perhaps impossible to document all on- and off-field activities of Shoaib Akhtar: that would perhaps have challenged Harry Potter in terms of volume. Anyway, things continued to take normal procedure: he was banned for an ODI in Zimbabwe for throwing a bottle at the crowd in Zimbabwe; this was followed by warnings related to ball-tampering allegations by match-referee Clive Lloyd during the Test series; and to crown it all, he missed the Test series in South Africa due to a knee injury.

Despite a disappointing World Cup Shoaib broke two ODI records in the tournament. The first was clocking the officially recorded fastest delivery, when he was announced the first person to break the 100-mile barrier, bowling a 161.3 kph (100.23 mph) to Nick Knight at Newlands. Shoaib writes in his autobiography:

“I began to touch 99 mph and I told myself, this is it, you can do it, run in with everything you have — let’s set a record. The moment the thought sprung into my head, I slowed down a bit. At first I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong but then I began to concentrate on my run-in-where I landed, how I took off. I realised that the problem lay in the last few yards. I made a conscious attempt to sustain my speed till the very end, twisted and swung my arm appropriately and released the ball at the speed of 161.3 kph; I had broken the 100-mph barrier. Again! I looked towards the pavilion and signalled to those inside: Look, I have done it again. Allah ka vasta hai, please recognize it. And they did.”

Later that evening Shoaib asked Knight whether the batsman had faced any impact of his deliveries. Knight responded: “Yes, of course! Every ball!” When a limited edition of pictures of the delivery was released Knight asked Shoaib to sign his own copy.

After England scored 246 for eight, Pakistan kept on losing wickets and were reduced to a hopeless 80 for nine: enter Shoaib. He faced 16 balls and scored 43 runs with five fours and three sixes. This still remains the highest score by a number 11 batsman in ODIs.None of the records, however, helped Pakistan’s cause, as they lost by plenty and were eliminated.

An amazing mixture of events

The sequence of events over the next 12 months probably demands a name in itself – something on the lines of Shoaib-esque or something similar. It is doubtful whether anyone will ever come close to achieving all these in such a short span of time.

It began with him getting into a verbal conflict with Waqar, then the captain. He was then dropped from the squad; he returned for the triangular tournament in Sri Lanka, got caught tampering the ball at Dambulla against New Zealand, and was suspended for two ODIs (he became the second player to achieve this ‘feat’ – after Waqar) and fined 75 per cent of his match-fee by Gundappa Viswanath.

For some inexplicable reason he was appointed vice-captain for the home series against South Africa. Immediately afterwards he faced a lawsuit from a Pakistan citizen for “attending a fashion show on a night of religious significance”. Following a verbal abuse against Paul Adams at Lahore, Shoaib was banned for one Test and two ODIs — this time by Lloyd.

In the New Zealand tour that followed Shoaib missed the first Test due to calf and groin injuries. However, he was photographed jet-skiing during the Test. Always blatant, Shoaib admitted the fact in his autobiography: “I guess it was a stupid thing to do — I left myself open to one more controversy. I never seem to learn.”

Then, almost out of oblivion, he rose like a phoenix: in the second Test at Wellington he routed New Zealand with figures of five for 48 and six for 30; the 11 for 78 would remain his career-best match haul. To keep up with his ‘Shoabisims’, he missed the subsequent ODI series with an injury.

A few months later India clobbered Pakistan by an innings at Multan but pulled things back at Lahore. In the deciding Test at Rawalpindi Shoaib bowled 21.2 overs, claiming Virender Sehwag, Tendulkar, and Laxman for 47 runs, and left the ground; when Pakistan was battling to avoid an innings defeat, Shoaib walked out and scored a cavalier 14-ball 28, which made people bring allegations that he had feigned the injury. He eventually had to prove that the injury was genuine.

In the Champions Trophy at the end of the year Shoaib ran into Brian Lara for the first time at The Rose Bowl. The conversation that followed was somewhat like this:

Shoaib: Can I say something to you?

Lara: Please do, but don’t be nasty to me.

Shoaib: No, I won’t. It is an honour for me to bowl to you. I have been waiting for this for so long.

Lara: Thank you very much, how about going easy on me then?

As Shoaib walked back to the non-striker’s end Ramnaresh Sarwan went up and asked Lara what the conversation was about. Lara replied, in jest, that Shoaib had warned him, and had threatened to kill him.

Three balls later Shoaib hit Lara on the head; Lara concussed and had to be hospitalised. Sarwan relayed Lara’s statement about Shoaib, and the fast bowler’s image took a toll once again. Eventually Lara had to intervene and clear up the proceedings of the previous day.


… and the saga continues…
To summarise, Shoaib’s Australia tour at the end of the year went like this: he bowled his heart out in the first two Tests, picking up five for 99 at the WACA and five for 109 at the MCG; managed to injure his shoulder; faced disciplinary actions from the team committee; and missed the ODIs due to a hamstring injury.

To add a new dimension (as if one was required) to his life he was offered a role in Gangster by Mahesh Bhatt, which he turned down. Citing reasons, he writes in his book: “It was a great script and I have always enjoyed movies but I didn’t accept the role for a couple of reasons. The PCB was on my ass and was threatening to ban me – if you do the film, we will do this, we will do that. Secondly, everyone around me was against my doing a film. If you want to play cricket, then don’t do it, it’s not possible to handle two professions, they advised me. I didn’t want people to think that I was a non-serious cricketer – movie bhi kar raha hai, like Mohsin Khan.”

Shoaib came back for the winter series at home against England. By now he had added an amazingly deceptive slower delivery to his repertoire. Bowling beautifully with his brutal pace mixed with subtly disguised variations, Shoaib led Pakistan to a 2-0 series victory, finishing with 17 wickets at 24.58. To nobody’s surprise he picked up an ankle injury in the last Test at Lahore.

The Indian coach Greg Chappell questioned Shoaib’s action during India’s tour of Pakistan. Mentioning the incident, Shoaib wrote: “When [Greg] Chappell opened his mouth, I immediately got in touch with a law firm and they said, if he does it officially, both of us will go laughing to the bank. To my great regret, the ICC restrained him; I would have been delighted to make some money out of him. In fact, I had been waiting for someone to report me and was ready to sue just about anyone; Greg Chappell would have done fine. Alas! Twenty-five million pounds — that’s the figure that seemed to have nestled in my head — flew out of the window.”

However, things turned back to normal when Shoaib developed a stress fracture and had to undergo a major surgery. At the end of the season, while still out of action, Shoaib and Mohammad Asif were found positive for Nandrolone. Shoaib was banned for two years and Asif one. Within a month they were acquitted with the words: “It is plainly evident that neither Shoaib Akhtar nor Mohammad Asif were ever warned or cautioned against taking supplements.”
More, more…
Shoaib was fined $2,500 soon afterwards when he got into a verbal battle with coach Bob Woolmer. He was also caught guilty of pushing Woolmer physically during a training session. He pulled out just before World Cup 2007.

Towards the end of 2007 he missed a coaching camp at Karachi – just like that – and was fined $5,000; he got away with a six-week probationary period following an appeal.

When it seemed that things could not get any worse, Shoaib did something that was possibly beyond the reach of any other cricketer. To quote the man himself, “He [Asif] was jeering at me and said a couple of things that got my goat but I never thought I would react the way I did and especially towards a junior. [Shahid] Afridi was still aggravating the situation and I swung the bat at both of them. Afridi ducked but Asif couldn’t get out of the way, the bat struck him on his thighs and he collapsed. I had lost it. I had never behaved like this, especially in the dressing room. I still don’t know what happened. All I know is that it was incredibly stupid of me. Afridi did what he always does: he leaked the news.”

Shoaib was banned for 13 matches and was fined $57,500. He was also put on a probationary period, with the warning that violation of any sort of rule or law would lead to a lifetime ban. He lost his central contract, accused PCB of double-standards, and was handed a five-year ban. Upon appealing, the tenure came down to one month, thanks to which could play for Kolkata Knight Riders in the inaugural IPL.

John Buchanan wanted Shoaib to sit out for what turned out to be his first match for the Knight Riders. He was eventually included at the requests of Sourav Ganguly and Shah Rukh Khan. After Knight Riders were bowled out for 133 Shoaib was suddenly back at his fiery best. He ended with four for 11 from three overs, and Delhi Daredevils lost by 23 runs.

The incidents did not stop. He was withdrawn from the 2009 World Twenty 20 because of genital viral warts. He picked up a knee injury while doing nothing, and lost the central character. Defying all logic, he was picked for the Asia Cup in 2010 — and from being without a contract, he was suddenly given a Grade A contract.

Then, after playing international cricket for close to 14 years, he bowed out of the sport, announcing his retirement during the 2011 World Cup. That single decision changed the attitude of a lot of people towards the man. Even Waqar, who had been a staunch adversary over the years, paid gratitude, mentioning that Shoaib was “irreplaceable”.

There will be greater players; but few as controversial and colourful; and certainly none as fast over such an extended period of time. There will possibly not be another Shoaib Akhtar.

The man

As this article reaches its end, one wonders whether we, the ardent lovers of the sport, have really done justice to the man. The man, who had bowled his heart out day after day, has often been scoffed at and ridiculed — because of his on- and off-field antics, his persistent injuries, his association with drugs and women.

Despite all that his integrity has never been question. He had lived through the quagmire of match-fixing and spot-fixing scandals that had marred his countrymen with his head held high. What was more, irrespective of what he had done, he had been honest enough to admit it — whether it had been ball-tampering or bashing up a teammate. He may have been hot-tempered and naive, but the fact that he had always been candid cannot be ignored.

It takes a lot to become a bowler of his calibre. Pace is usually something a bowler is gifted with: however, it can be maintained over a long period of time only through proper care, which was something Shoaib had almost invariably not got from PCB. The spats with the board and his illustrious seniors, the board’s inability to look after his injuries, its negligence to have dealt with him personally — have all contributed to his controversial self.

Possibly a kind word or two would have done a world of good. Shoaib lamented in his autobiography: “Fast bowlers are like big babies, they respond better if they are pampered and cared for. You might ask, why do we need to be pampered? Because we are doing an abnormal job! Our bodies undergo incredible stress. Our joints wear out; the entire body suffers tremendous wear and tear… When I bowl, my heart rate jumps to over 170, the blood rushes through my veins, my body temperature shoots up to over 102°F. We also lose body weight dramatically while playing. No wonder we are touchy, ready to hit out and get into scrapes.”

The puritans may argue that not all fast bowlers have been as mercurial: Andy Roberts and Joel Garner, Wasim Akram and Brett Lee, Courtney Walsh and Shane Bond. None of them, however, actually “wanted to be pampered”. Maybe it was something that his lonely self craved for and never got. His ruthless, angry self could probably have done with some affection.

Despite all the accolades he has won over the years, he still proudly mentions Shoaib’s Rock: when he was young he used to sit and think on a rock that jutted out in Rawalpindi. The rock has now been cordoned off by the people of his locality and has been named after him. He need not have mentioned it: however, it was perhaps warmth he had craved for — more than awe — and the lack of which gave him the brash attitude.

When he had reached Lahore for the Pakistan International Airlines trials from Rawalpindi in his younger days he did not have a place to spend a night. He had sought for shelter from Aziz Khan, a tongawalla (the driver of a horse-drawn cart) in his tonga (a horse-drawn cart). The man not only provided him with shelter, but also with food, and gave him a free ride to the ground the next day.

Once he was back a hero from India (including the dismissals of Dravid and Tendulkar with consecutive deliveries) the first thing he did was to adorn a false beard, put on dark glasses, and seek out Aziz Khan:

“Look how many people recognize you and are dying to take you to their homes now.”
“Yes, but you were the one who gave me shelter when I was unknown, so I recognize you alone and am here to meet only you.”

Maybe we understand the man somewhat now.

In pictures: Shoaib Akhtar’s career

(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)

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Aug 30, 2014 (15:00 IST)   at Nottingham

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Aug 31, 2014 (13:00 IST)   at Harare

India tour of England 2014

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Zimbabwe Triangular Series, 2014

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Zimbabwe Triangular Series, 2014

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India won by 133 runs

Photos

Aaron Finch's record 156 vs England in T20I

Videos

Alastair Cook looks ahead to 3rd ODI at Nottingham

MS Dhoni records most stumpings in international cricket during India-England 3rd ODI at Trent Bridge

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MS Dhoni records most stumpings in international cricket during India-England 3rd ODI at Trent Bridge

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Niharika Shah

Niharika Shah

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